Americans do not listen to their betters. George Soros is richer than most Americans. Michael Moore sells more tickets. Bruce Springsteen plays to bigger halls. Susan Sarandon is more luscious. The contributors to The New York Review of Books have more advanced degrees. The reporters and columnists for The New York Times have more Pulitzer Prizes. They and their peers told us that re-electing President Bush would be a victory for chaos and old night, depriving us, in extreme cases, of their company when the unhappiest of them decamped to Canada, France or less barbarous places. Yet 59 million Americans held the line.
George W. Bush’s victory was no wipeout. But a 51-48 percent popular-vote margin is quite respectable, as these things go. It is larger than Mr. Bush’s popular-vote margin four years ago, which was negative. It is larger than Jimmy Carter’s margin over Gerald Ford in 1976, or Richard Nixon’s over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, or John Kennedy’s over Nixon in 1960. Mr. Bush won a larger share of the popular vote than Bill Clinton did in the three-way races of 1992 and 1996, or than Ronald Reagan did in the three-way race of 1980.
George W. Bush’s vote total is more impressive than the tallies that gave us Camelot, Nixon agonistes, Desert One, the Reagan revolution or Monica Lewinsky. A one-seat Republican pickup in the House and a four-seat pickup in the Tom Daschle–less Senate hammer the victory home.
Is it possible that Americans don’t listen to their betters because their betters don’t listen to them? The day after the election, I had lunch with an eminent sociologist-learned, curious and quite unpredictable in both his interests and his conclusions. Talk turned to the “values” issues, which some exit polls showed as having bulked so large the day before. Guns came first. I said that, as a result of having a house in Ulster County, I was, for the first time in my life, among hunters, and while I had no wish to join their ranks, I was in the market for something to kill the odd rabid varmint when it showed up. So a friend of a friend had brought over two shotguns, a.410 and a 20-gauge, and I had taken some practice shots at leaves in the pond.
In mid-anecdote, I realized I might be describing nuclear weapons or Bronze Age ax heads, so remote are shotguns from our lives-from both our lives, for I was only parroting what I had recently heard and seen. We turned to abortion, and my friend said it was time he talked to some pro-lifers, not to cross-examine them, nor yet to be harangued by them, but to get some sense of where they were coming from. That is the scientific method. Yet isn’t it remarkable that in all these decades of controversy over the life issue, he had not yet had the opportunity?
You know Mr. Bush had a solid win because it was followed by appeals from the losers for unity. The most eloquent such appeal in American history was written by my latest hero, Gouverneur Morris, to a group of Federalists on the eve of the election of 1816. The Federalists, the party of Washington and Hamilton, had lost four straight Presidential elections, and Morris advised them, in words that echo down the ages, to sit out the next election. “Gentlemen, let us forget party, and think of our country. That country embraces both parties. We must endeavor, therefore, to save and benefit both …. [M]en of sense, experience, and integrity … may, I trust, be found in both parties; and, if our country be delivered, what does it signify whether those who operate her salvation wear a federal or a democratic cloak?”
As a political scientist, Morris was wrong: Parties exist to express and channel the disagreements that exist in society. They fight because men differ, and men differ because they are men. Morris was smarter, years earlier, when he wrote that a political party could act as an “outward conscience” for its rivals, braking their excesses and rebuking them when they failed. The Democrats have suffered such a failure. They made a mighty effort to unseat an incumbent President in wartime, and could not make their case. Mr. Bush is politically and constitutionally obliged to get all he prudently can from his victory. He will find constraints enough upon him, from cross-purposes in his own ranks (Arlen Specter, anyone?) to the rudeness of the world. The Democrats will certainly do all they prudently can to thwart him.
Yet there is truth after all in Morris’ wise and lofty appeal. For three years, our bleary eyes have stared at the Terror War. Yet other issues bump along, from Social Security to taxes to guns to abortion. One that seems to have played a role in this election was gay marriage. Did Karl Rove use it to mobilize the G.O.P.’s base? Did it push Mr. Bush over the top, or was it a wash? So the pundits, printouts in hand, wrangle.
Americans fight about gay marriage, as they fight about many things. But note the limits within which they fight. Opponents of gay marriage do not want society’s oldest institution to be changed by runaway mayors, as in San Francisco or New Paltz, N.Y., or by imperial courts, as in Massachusetts. They don’t want it changed at all, but as Americans they would be willing to abide the test of the ballot box.
The cheapest rhetorical shot of liberals is to say that such people are fundamentalists, and so are jihadists; therefore, Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden must be alike. But as Americans went to the polls, we saw how our enemies settle contested questions. Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch moviemaker who is the great-grandnephew of the painter, was shot and stabbed by an Islamist fanatic, who left a note threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born Dutch politician. His crime? To have made a movie, The Submission, on Islamic maltreatment of women. Her crime? To have raised the issue herself in the context of Dutch politics.
We use military metaphors for politics all the time, from political campaigns to barrages of criticism. But some people use barrages. They aren’t content to bloody their own societies; they want to deface our own as well. This is the most important issue for the next four years, for Republicans, Democrats and all of us.